Notes and Editorial Reviews
Solo Violin Partitas: Nos. 1–3
Midori Seiler (vn) (period instrument)
BERLIN 0016722BC (79:34)
Midori Seiler performs Johann Sebastian Bach’s three partitas for solo violin on a Baroque instrument—fitted with gut strings, according to her notes, and without the dubious benefit of either chinrest or shoulder rest—and using a Baroque bow. But she never allows the timbres of her instrument to do the interpretive work for her (as some early period instrumentalists seemed to do). Her violin sounds almost
shrill at times, cutting through Bach’s filigree as though it might be a sharp knife. But her tone’s a tool, and she wields it more as a surgeon than as a slasher, carving particularly delicate patterns in the First Partita’s Allemanda. There she indulges a rich imagination while staying (although barely) within the confines of the dance rhythm. At times, she articulates isolated notes with a piquancy that sheds new light on an entire passage. She creates a similar sense of fantasy in the Double. While she mixes wit and sensitivity in the Corrente, its Double, in her reading, sounds as dashing and virtuosic as it does in performances by more cut-and-thrust virtuosos like Ruggiero Ricci—each note bites with a crisp attack, but the whole is under the control of her musical imagination. She maintains a strong sense of the Sarabande’s long line, even though Bach broke it up with implied counterpoint. The Tempo di Borea, however, crackles in her reading with rhythmic vitality.
As do so many other violinists, Seiler breaks the long phrases of the Second Partita’s Allemanda into shorter sections by means of a sort of recurring internal punctuation. Perhaps this tendency comes with greater experience of the work: Nathan Milstein, for example, seemed more prone to doing so later in his career than earlier (compare his earlier set from 1954 with his later one from 1973); Carl Flesch had earlier suggested such an interpretation in his treatise on the violin literature’s masterworks. In any case, Seiler never sounds mannered while engaging in this minute dissection. Be that as it may, her performance of the Corrente shares with the preceding partita’s Tempo di Borea a rhythmic verve that should startle even the most jaded listener into hearing the movement in a new way. Evincing a very different manner, she takes the Sarabanda slowly, allowing its chords to resonate. And she transforms the Giga into a perpetual motion, but no mere mechanical one; the rapidly moving lines always remain vectors, exhibiting magnitude and direction as well as sheer velocity. Seiler falls in the middle in the Chaconne, at 15:31, between a Jascha Heifetz-like 13-odd-minute performance and a Joseph Szigeti-like near-16-minute one. But as to what happens in Seiler’s 15-odd minutes, all bets must be called off: She employs bracing and wide-ranging articulations and tempos to bring new intellectual life to passages lying dormant no matter how frequently performed.
Seiler makes the Third Partita’s Preludio crackle with fiery lightning; even Heifetz didn’t generate more jolting electricity in this showpiece, even though Seiler never seems to rush. She creates a strong contrast between her more demure reading of the Loure and her very arch one of the Gavotte en Rondeau. I remember finding the two minuets almost tiresome in an early recording by Jaime Laredo, but they continually tweak the listener’s interest in Seiler’s performances, while the Bourée and Gigue sound downright breathtaking in them. The recorded sound captures Seiler at just the right distance, in the reverberant ambiance of the Johann Sebastian Bach Hall in the Palace at Cöthen, to blend detail with tonal warmth.
In the booklet interview, Seiler suggests that she doesn’t like to listen to other performances while working out her own—she may listen occasionally after she’s figured things out for herself, but prefers to find her way by relying on the music itself and her reactions to it. Perhaps that’s why her ideas sound fresh in nearly every measure. José Raúl Capablanca thought chess had been played out before the aggressive, creative, and fanciful Alexander Alekhine wrested the world championship from him. If anyone thinks Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas have reached their interpretive limits, along has come Midori Seiler to prove them unduly pessimistic. Violinists should, all of them, hear these readings, not to imitate them but to discover how open they should remain to alternative approaches. But these readings aren’t so idiosyncratic that they’ll become tiresome upon repeated hearings. If I could keep only one of my dozens of recordings of the partitas, this would be it. Essential listening, urgently recommended to everybody.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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